Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection (second review)

The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection, by Paul Kenyon
February, 1974  Pocket Books

Some people re-read Moby-Dick; I’m re-reading The Ecstasy Connection. Six years ago I first reviewed this initial volume of The Baroness, and while I enjoyed it then I really loved it this time. This is opposite of the experience I had when I re-read The Enforcer #1 last year; while I loved that one the first time I read it, on my second reading I found it rather padded and uneventful.

Not so for The Ecstasy Connection, which still retains its position as one of the more sleazy, lurid, and entertaining men’s adventure novels I’ve yet read. And true to the standards of producer Lyle Kenyon Engel’s Book Creations Incorporated, it’s very well written. I don’t know how Engel did it, but he managed to always find quality authors – authors who all seemed to have the same sort of professional style. Thanks to ppsantos at The Baroness Yahoo Group, we now know that Donald Moffitt was the author of this book, as well as the seven volumes that followed (not to mention two others that were never published). Sadly, I’ve also learned from the Yahoo club that Mr. Moffitt passed away in December, 2014. Luckily he was able to discover the fan base his old series had acquired before he shrugged off those mortal coils.

I developed a lot of respect for Moffitt as I re-read this novel; the minor sleazy tidbits he packs into the book are incredible. He leaves no lurid stone unturned, from mentioning the “foamy pubes” of a nude woman who has died of a massive orgasm to detailing the plentiful carnage in the book’s frequent action scenes. While I didn’t much care for some of the later volumes (and I plan on re-reading them, too, so we’ll see if I still feel that way), it must be said that this first volume of The Baroness is one of the best men’s adventure novels ever written, hitting all the bases one could want. 

This makes it all the more interesting that The Ecstasy Connection was actually the second manuscript Moffitt wrote – the first one he wrote was Diamonds Are For Dying, which was published second in the series. (Thanks again to ppsantos for this info!) Diamonds Are For Dying was one of my least favorite books in the series, but maybe I should’ve read it first this time around, just to see how Moffitt improved between volumes. At any rate there is textual evidence throughout The Ecstasy Connection that it actually takes place after the second volume; for example, Penelope “The Baroness” St. John-Orsini at one point mentions her “previous mission in Brazil,” where she lost her favored pistol, a Bernadelli VB. All of this happened in Diamonds Are For Dying.

Perhaps Moffitt just figured out the series he wanted to write with The Ecstasy Connection; maybe he had trouble finding his footing with Diamonds Are For Dying. Whatever the reason, he scored a home run with this one, with a wildly over-the-top plot, constant action, a likable protagonist (the Baroness here isn’t as gratingly arrogant as she sometimes is in later volumes), and plentiful sex – yet again I wondered this time who exactly this series was written for. Was Lyle Kenyon Engel envisioning a women’s adventure series? Penelope’s frequent sex scenes are all written from her point of view, so we read of the pleasure she experiences as a man slides into her “scabbard” and whatnot. In the traditional men’s adventure novel, these sex scenes would of course be relayed from the man’s point of view. But then, there’s no way to get around this when your protagonist is a woman (unless you POV-hop, which you shouldn’t), so I digress.

Speaking of the rampant, explicit sex scenes, it occurred to me this time that perhaps the focus on sex is the very reason why The Baroness was published by Pocket Books, which didn’t really do much in the way of men’s adventure. However Pocket had cornered the market on trash fiction, mostly because it retained the paperback rights to Harold Robbins. Perhaps Engel envisioned this series as expressly catering to Pocket’s demand for sleaze – the dude was a genius for marketing and packaging books. Whatever the thinking, it got some attention; another thing Moffitt revealed to ppsantos of the Yahoo Baroness group was that Robbins himself at one point was trying to make a movie out of The Baroness!

Well anyway, this volume’s outrageous plot is about a dangerous new drug which activates the pleasure center of the hypothalamus, causing its users to literally die of pleasure. The novel features I believe the most memorable opening sequence in the series, with a gorgeous and famous stage actress, strung out on the ecstasy drug, doffing her clothes in front of a packed audience and yelling, “Screw me, darlings!” Meanwhile other notables are suffering from the drug, most damningly a nuclear missile operator in a military base who almost triggers WWIII before collapsing dead on his console. After the mandatory scene in which the various intelligence agency heads argue over who should get the job, we learn that “Key” – aka NSA man John Farnsworth – has been tapped by the President to activate “Coin.”

This is of course Penelope, the Baroness herself, and when we meet her she’s hosting one of her famous bi-annual parties in her plush Manhattan apartment. All the jet-setters are here, and Moffitt capably injects just the sort of sleazy ‘70s stuff we want throughout: “A blue haze of hemp hung over the rooms and drifted out over Central Park.” Interestingly, it’s just assumed that the reader already knows that Penelope is “Coin;” she sees a Senator in her party and reflects on the “NSA dossier” on him. Clearly this is yet another indication that this was intended as the second volume; I’m pretty sure Penelope was given a little more buildup in Diamonds Are For Dying.

A famous covergirl model – whom we learn later has even starred in two movies – Penelope is a smokin’ hot, raven-haired babe with an incredible bod, “huge luminous green eyes,” and “spectacular cheekbones.” (In other words, if Robbins had gotten a movie made, there was only one damn actress he could’ve hired to play the Baroness – Lynda “Good Lord!!!” Carter.) Oh, and cover artist Hector Garrido consistently depicted Penelope in a skin-tight black suit, which I always figured was his own invention. However at one point in this volume Penelope is in fact dressed in a black leotard, so maybe that’s what inspired Garrido.

Farnsworth contacts Penelope just as she’s engaged in her favorite activity – kinky sex. This too would become a recurring scene in future volumes, each of which for the most part follows the same template as The Ecstasy Connection. Moffitt turns out the first of his pages-long, XXX-hardcore sex scenes, as Penelope eagerly boffs a Joe Namath-esque football star. No detail is spared here. But once she answers Farnsworth’s call – and Penelope is contacted via her watch, which sends shocks through her to get her attention – Penelope meets her contact in the downtown Manhattan offices of International Models, Inc., where Farnsworth, an OSS veteran in his fifties with gray hair and a clipped moustache, acts as the company’s general manager.

The Baroness, tasked with finding out where this dangerous mystery drug is coming from, puts together her eight-person team. This time I actually paid attention to who they are, but be aware they are for the most part ciphers who add little to the series. Interestingly, it turns out that Moffitt himself felt the same, and indeed was requested to give the Baroness a large team – check out his comments on the origins of the series, which he also sent to ppsantos. But for posterity, here are the members of the Baroness’s team:

Dan Wharton: Described as “blond” and “bearlike,” he’s a former Green Beret who is in love with the Baroness. He’s also curiously prudish and there are many subtle mentions of how he will shyly look away when he sees a nude woman. It’s later explained that he was raised in a strict family, but still there’s enough textual evidence here for the reader to go “hmmm.”

Inga (no last name given): A “big-boned, babyfaced blonde,” whose cover is as one of Penelope’s models. She’s one of the team members who won’t contribute much here or in future volumes. This time she gives Penelope a massage.

Joe Skytop: Like Dan Wharton, he’s one of the few team members who will actually do anything in this and ensuing volumes. Another bear of a man – it’s not outright stated but I believe he’s supposed to be even more muscular than Wharton – he’s described as a “full-blooded Cherokee Indian” and he’s a master of all forms of unarmed combat.

Tom Sumo: Like Wharton and Skytop, another of the team members who actually matters. The Q of the Baroness’s team, Sumo is Japanese-American and contributes a variety of high-tech gizmos, each of which Moffitt overdescribes with annoyingly “gee whiz”-type narrative and dialog. (Ie, “My saliva is the electrolyte.”)

Paul (no last name given): An “elegant black man,” who I believe has maybe two lines this time. He won’t go on to much greater in the series. His cover is as one of Penelope’s top male models. We’re informed he’s some sort of guerrilla warfare specialist. (Meaning maybe he was a Black Panther??) And like June Cleaver, he can speak jive; ie “chillen” instead of “children.”

Yvette (no last name given): The other black member of the team, and usually paired with Paul, stereotyping be damned. (Humorously, when Penelope sends off her team on various missions early in the book, Paul and Yvette are instructed to don fly threads and head “uptown” to find out what’s going on with the pimps and the drugdealers!) She contributes nothing here and won’t in future, either. We’re informed she’s from Haiti, speaks with a slight accent, and is expert with disguises and piloting “small craft.”

Eric (no last name given): The most cipherlike member of the team, this dude’s apparently blond, the son of a merchant seaman or something, and a good fistfighter. He does absolutely nothing. We’re informed he’s Penelope’s “top male model.” It’s implied that he and Inga are an item.

Fiona (no last name given): A ravishing redhead, Penelope’s “top female model,” with no stated speciality. About the only thing we learn is that she’s notoriously late for meetings and is generally lazy.

Penelope spends the first half of The Ecstasy Connection in Manhattan, with Skytop and Wharton sent out around the country to track down various leads (which leads up to the memorable moment of Skytop taking on a bunch of bikers). This half I believe is the highlight of the book, with Moffitt capably juggling multiple threads and really keeping things moving. Not to mention sleazy – the villain, we learn, is a mountain of blubber named Petronius Sim who is behind the ecstasy drug but has hired the American Mafia to kill off any who might have taken it, as he doesn’t want any details leaked yet. One of his thugs kills one such user, and we watch again as a female character dies in the throes of orgasm. When Penelope later discovers the nude corpse, we’re informed: “Her crotch was a foamy mess.” As mentioned, Moffitt peppers the novel with such sleazy details, and it’s a wonder to behold.

The absolute highlight of the book is almost midway through, when Penelope crashes a party of the drug elite in Manhattan, where the mysterious “Big E” drug is supposed to be handed out. But Penelope quickly deduces that something rotten is going on. The Mafia hosts don’t seem too interested in the eager women here, and they also seem to insist that everyone engage in an orgy while they stand off on the sidelines. When Penelope sees the moving trucks down below she realizes that it’s a hit – they’re planning to kill everyone off and haul away the corpses. Acting fast, Penelope sheds her clothes and heads for the “biggest pile” of group-sexers: “She dove for the bottom of the pile and began wriggling her way inside. Eager hands groped for her breasts and buttocks. It was warm and steamy in the middle of the bodies, smelling of sweat and semen.”

Moffitt pulls out all the stops here, with the Mafia soldiers blowing everyone away mid-orgy, the bullets thudding into the bodies atop Penelope. In her escape she employs one of her trademark weapons, a black cigarette lighter/holder which dispenses “a splinter of synthetic black widow spider venom.” Even though I’d read it once before, I was still very caught up in this cinematic sequence, which sees a nude, blood-covered Baroness escaping up to the building’s rooftop and luring out the Mafia soldiers one by one, killing them with stolen weapons or with her bare hands. It’s a masterfully-written scene and proof positive that there was some very high-quality material in the otherwise-grubby world of ‘70s men’s adventure novels. And Moffit’s just as wonderfully descriptive in the gory action scenes as he is in the sex scenes, like when the Baroness shoots one of the mobsters: “His shattered skull began to ooze brain tissue like toothpaste.”

After this thrill-ride of a sequence – which is capped off with a nude Penelope stealing a moving truck right out from under the Mafia stooges’s noses – the team determines that the Big E has its origins in Hong Kong. After another several pages of sex with the football star, our heroine heads for Asia, Farnsworth having set it all up as yet another photo shoot for International Models, Inc. Penelope brings along all of the high-tech gear created for her – and annoyingly overdescribed via dialog and narrative – by Sumo, including her ever-reliable spyder, the “powerful little pistol-winch” that’s used throughout the series. There are also the “plastic sandal straps” which can become throwing knives, as well as a bra with “super polymer threads” and a pair of shoes with a “thermite core” in the heel. You can tell that Moffitt was really into sci-fi, and he appears to have done a lot of research on satellite technology and espionage gear of the day.

Moffitt was also well ahead of the curve in that he seems to have predicted the future sci-fi genre of cyberpunk; Petronius Sim employs a variety of “juiceheads,” each of whom have metal plates in their heads, which they insert wires into and, after entering that day’s code (provided by Sim), they experience orgasmic joy. It’s all very much like something out of a William Gibson novel from a decade later. He’s also good at capturing the feel of exotic places; Penelope is given a tour of Hong Kong’s slums by Major Nigel Pickering, who presents himself as a member of the police, and Moffitt brings to life the squalor of the place – and still doesn’t forget the sleaze, with Pickering at one point propositioned by a prepubescent girl!

Meanwhile Penelope knows instantly that she’s going to be having some hot sex with Pickering – even though she just screwed the football star half to death a few pages before. After an expensive dinner these two repair to Penelope’s hotel room for more XXX action, Moffitt again mostly relaying it through Penelope’s perspective. Who cares that she’s already deduced “Pickering” isn’t who he claims to be, and might even be an enemy agent? She wants to screw him anyway. Another overlong sex scene follows, Penelope’s “magnificent breasts” heaving away.

Moffitt hews closely to the Bond formula – after being wined and dined at the palatial residence of Sim, Penelope finds herself a prisoner of the sadist. But instead of the “mink-lined cell” of Fleming’s Doctor No, Sim instead straps a nude Penelope onto a matress and hooks her into a colossal artificial brain! Sim has used countless human guinea pigs to fully map the human brain, something no one else has been able to do; thus he knows exactly where the pleasure and pain centers are, and how to stimulate them. He proceeds to carry out his learnings on Penelope.

It all gets pretty psychedelic, with Sim and his scientific crony Dr. Jolly (and let’s not forget the flunky named Happy!) activating the portion of Penelope’s brain which still retains the hybrid sexual state it possessed when it was an embryo; soon Penelope feels that she is equipped like a man, even though she can see her nude body is unchanged. It gets more and more out-there, capping off with the unforgettable line: “And now Penelope herself was a giant penis.” It gets even more like an XXX-rated 2001: A Space Odyssey as Sim and Jolly next activate Penelope’s female region, so that she has sex with herself in a supremely psychedelic sequence:

And then, somehow, she was a vagina too. A starry tunnel bored into the sky. The two parts of herself, male and female, worked together at their cosmic copulation, and she could feel all of it. 

And then the universe ended in a galactic explosion. There was a vast milky spurt that shot to the boundaries of creation, and an answering shudder from the vaginal sky. Fiery meteors rained down from the heavens. The solar system shook.

As Dr. Jolly later says, the Baroness, like a regular Barbarella on the Excessive Machine, has “an extraordinary capacity to feel sex.” After beating the shit out of a nurse Penelope’s able to escape, and here the novel shows that it’s a bit too long for its own good – 223 pages of small print – as we have this arbitrary bit where Penelope, feverish and dazed, just manages to get away from Sim’s men and ends up collapsing on the Hong Kong docks. There she’s picked up by a kindly old junk trawler who cares for her – for three days! Once Penelope is recovered she discovers the man’s kindness was just a ruse; he intends to sell her to an old madame. Penelope laughs it off, goes back to sleep(!?) – and then the scene proves how arbitrary it is when Sim’s men board the junk and take her captive again!

So now our heroine is right back where she started, plus Skytop and Dan are also now captives; temporarily mindless thanks to Sim’s various pleasure center controllers. Pickering’s also a prisoner – turns out he’s a British secret agent. Sim plans to wire Penelope and Pickering’s minds together, so that they feel each other’s pleasure, and to get the festivities started he orders that the two be dosed with aphrodesiacs and chained together, given a night of total privacy so that they can become attuned to one another’s sex drives(just go with it!). This of course leads to another of Moffitt’s patented super-hardcore scenes, as the chained nudes have heroic sex:

He was moving in and out in a corkscrew motion now. She butted him with her bottom at each jab, trying to get all of him inside her. One of her bumps was too violent. Pickering lost his balance and fell over backward. Before he could get to his knees again, she swung around, dragging the ankle chain with her, and squatted atop his mast. She lowered herself and it pushed deep within her. “I want to watch your face when you come,” she whispered hoarsely.

Even though the Baroness frequently gets captured, she always manages to stage an ingenious escape – what will also prove to be a recurring theme in the series, and usually the highlight of each volume. After the night of super sex, Pickering is taken away and Penelope’s all alone. She manages to cajole Happy the stooge into opening her special pillbox, which really hides a microwave radar or something. At any rate it fries the wires in Happy’s brain, and a freed Penelope once again beats the shit out of the same nurse, steals her clothes, and massacres everyone in the operating room in one of the more wonderfully-gory scenes in the book…a scene complete with Penelope ramming a bonesaw through the “soft jelly” of Dr. Jolly’s brain.

The finale gets wilder and wilder, intentionally or not recalling Island Of Lost Souls, ie the Charles Laughton movie based on Island of Dr. Moreau. Penelope and her freed comrades lay to waste half of the villa, freeing Sim’s various human experiments, all of whom want their pound of flesh. Meanwhile Sim floats in a pool of honey(!), bombed out of his skull on a super-ecstasy drug he just perfected. He’s impossible to get to, safely behind steel bars and other protective barriers. However the designers of this fortress didn’t count on the freakish strength of the human guinea pigs, who break through the barriers and rip Sim to pieces with their claws in a gloriously outrageous finale.

Sadly, I don’t recall any of the successive volumes of The Baroness reaching the incredible heights of The Ecstasy Connection. Many of them come close, though, but with this one Moffitt really struck trash gold. It’s a shame the series has become so collectible and thus overpriced on the used books market. Moffitt’s even sure to end on the sleaze, with Penelope, back in Manhattan, looking up that football quarterback and demanding another night’s fun, whether he’s playing in the SuperBowl tomorrow or not.

Technically this volume would lead into #3: Death Is A Ruby Light, but I’ll read Diamonds Are For Dying next, mostly because it was published second. Ideally I guess you should read that one first, though, then this one, and then continue on with volume three. At any rate I do look forward to re-reading the rest of The Baroness, and I had a grand ol’ time enjoying the sleazy mastery of The Ecstasy Connection.


Andrew Byers said...

Great review as always, Joe! I have been meaning to pick up one of the Baroness books for years now. It's probably always been readily to everyone but me, but as I was reading your review it dawned on me that the Baroness' cover depictions pretty clearly influenced the G.I. Joe villaness "the Baroness" who wears a very similar outfit.

halojones-fan said...

And heck, if you toned down the graphic sex and violence, what goes on in this book isn't much weirder than your average GI Joe episode!

P said...

What made you review this again? I'm wondering considering you mentioned in your very last Baroness review (for #8) that you're very much done with the series. Just curious.